I'm so happy to welcome Sherry Gomes to my blog this month! Sherry is a longtime blogger and reader of my books—going back to my days when I was published by The Writer's Coffee Shop. I got to know her via the internet as she participated in various book release tours of mine, and recently we got to chatting about book accessibility for the blind and seeing impaired. Sherry, being both blind and a prolific reader and writer, is a wellspring of information on this topic, and she graciously agreed to let me pick her brain! I hope you enjoy learning from her.
1) Please tell us a little about yourself.
My name is Sherry Gomes. I’m sixty-one. I live in a small city in Colorado with my golden retriever guide dog, Petunia. I was born with a disease called Juvenile Rheumatoid arthritis, JRA. JRA is different from adult RA or similar diseases, and it can be either mild or serious. I have the serious kind, so besides having arthritis in every joint in my body, it also damaged the optic nerve, and I have been totally blind since around age five. I really can’t remember, but that’s what my family told me. I only mention all that because we’re talking about books and the ways that accessing books have changed since my childhood is darn near miraculous for me.
2) How did you get into book reviewing?
The internet made book reviewing an easy thing for me. I started by reading and reviewing fan fiction. Back in those years between Harry Potter books, when we were all longing for JKR to publish the next one, someone told me about fan fiction. I found a whole new world of stories, and now read in a variety of genres—and write in some too! From the start of my journey into fan fic, I was committed to reviewing. From there, it was quite a short jump to reviewing books. I have friends who worked at the Writers Coffee shop, and they invited me to review some of their upcoming books. For a while, I reviewed many books from TWCS, which is how I found your books. I ended up loving reviewing, and though I tend not to do it as much now, I try to review books that really make a difference to me.
3) What is your favorite genre to read?
Oh, boy, that’s a hard question. I’d almost say, what genre don’t I like. However, here are some.
Fantasy, both epic and young adult
Historical fiction, the longer the better
Family sagas, the longer the better
Gothic and romantic suspense
Those yummy slow-burn British mystery series
Space stories, fiction and nonfiction
Anything about the American Revolution, fiction or nonfiction
It’s always about characters for me, so if a book has great characters and plenty of them, I’ll give it a try.
4) Do you find, as a blind person, that accessibility to books has improved in recent years? If so, what are some of the developments that have led to these improvements?
And now we get to why I elaborated about my blindness in question one! When I was growing up, I fell in love with reading from the first day they put my hands on a first-grade braille reader. Anyone remember Run Jane Run! Anyway, back then, the only sources for books were through the Library of congress, National library Service for the Blind, NLS. Or, in the town where I grew up, a small local volunteer group that hand-brailled textbooks for blind students and some novels. The NLS books were either braille, or recorded on records, later cassettes and now digital downloads. I wanted to read everything.
I went to public school, and I envied my sighted friends who could walk into a book store, pick up any book and buy it, own it, keep it forever or give it away. I wanted that so desperately. There were few books in either braille or recordings back then, and I hungered for more. Purchasing such books was not feasible as they were very expensive. I dreamed of growing rich someday and buying a big house, so I could have several rooms, stocked with books, floor to ceiling.
Then, in the nineties, commercial audio books hit the scene. Stephen King was the first major author to put his books out in unabridged audio. I worked at a major department store chain, and I would spend my lunch hour at the bookstore in the mall, happily browsing the shelves for new books on tapes. There I was, actually in a bookstore, buying books! It was mind-blowing.
Still, until Harry Potter came along, most commercial audio books were abridged. Beggars can’t be choosers, and I read my share of abridged books back then and discovered wonderful authors I wouldn’t have access to in any other way. But then came Harry, and Harry changed the world, and changed my reading life.
Harry Potter was the first time that commercial audio books were released the same time as the hard cover print books. For the first time in my life, in my forties, I was able to discuss the latest smash with my peers! I wasn’t years behind, because I was able to get my book the same day sighted folks got theirs. NLS was always behind, due to budgets, getting books read, recorded, edited and such. I won’t go into all the other ways that HP affected my life, except to say, that I even went to three midnight release parties, something that could never have happened before commercial audio books came along.
In the early 2000s, I discovered audible.com and that was an amazing adventure. There were thousands of new books, mostly unabridged, and I could access them all, as long as I could afford it, of course. Again, I found books and authors I had never been able to read before. I discovered George R. R. Martin and the Song of Ice and Fire, just as an example. Here again was timely access to contemporary books, more things to discuss with my colleagues and friends, more new worlds to discover.
Around this same time, a service called bookshare came along. This is a special service for people who can’t read print, and has exceptions under the copyright laws, just as the NLS has, so that books can be accessible to those of us who are blind, or otherwise print disabled. This service is both a place where volunteers can scan and upload books, and where publishers can donate clean digital copies of their latest books. It’s also a place where authors can donate copies of their books. We pay a flat fee per year to access this service. Any type of book can be uploaded, so there’s everything from the typical genres, to erotica to text books and highly technical manuals.
And then came kindle. Amazon opened another door for me. Amazon has been committed to accessibility from the start, and when they came out with kindle books, they also had an accessible kindle device. Here I found new books, old books, everything in between books. Along with the ability to self-publish through amazon, I found authors and stories I’ve never found anywhere else. And I’m still finding things I can’t find anywhere else, as well as some old much loved authors, whose books have never been put in any audible format, or perhaps, nobody but me misses enough to have uploaded to bookshare. NLS may have recorded many of these on records long ago, but now they’ve gone digital, and the books that were on records will never get digitized. So, I keep checking amazon for those beloved authors.
And I’ve written a novel about this, but it is a subject dear to my heart and soul. I don’t own a big house with multiple libraries. I have a cozy little two-bedroom condo. But, I have my multiple libraries, on several devices, on several computer hard drives, on many SD cards. I have the library I dreamed of for so long, and I’ve never gotten over the wonder of finally having access to books. It will never be enough. The number of books in some kind of format I can read, compared to the number of print books past and present, well, it’s small. But this is more than I ever thought I could have.
5) Are there any well-kept secrets when it comes to reading accessibility for the blind or seeing impaired?
Not really. Just that for many types of books, we have to own accessible devices that will play or read the books to us. Commercially, both Audible and amazon have gone a long way toward that. For bookshare and NLS, we have to have special devices to play the books.
6) Is there anything you wish authors knew—or would do better—about portraying characters with disabilities in stories?
I’m incredibly picky about this. Characters with disabilities are rarely portrayed correctly in books or film. In fact, I wrote one of my fan fics, just to show how a blind character in the genre might actually live her life, instead of reading the nonsense that was out there. We who are blind, don’t feel faces for instance. Just one myth that is completely false. We’re also not superhuman. We’re just normal people, living our lives, doing our things, trying to get by. I write stories with blind characters where blindness is not the main point of the story, trying to show that we are just like everyone else. So, I would say, if a person wants to write about a character with a disability, do research. The internet is a good place. Look for organizations relating to that disability, whose members have that disability, and talk to them. Don’t ask nondisabled people what a disabled person would do, go directly to the source.
7) Anything else you'd like to share?
Can’t think of anything else. I’ve written my novel just answering these question. I do have a blog, so if anyone is interested, they can read it here:
Archives from my old blog...